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Whale watching, Bay of Fundy, Photographer:Brian Atkinson

It's been a Banner Year for Whale Watching

DERWIN GOWAN
TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL
SEPT 08/09

    ST. ANDREWS - It feels a bit like old times on the Bay of Fundy, says retired marine biologist Art MacKay of St. Andrews.
   Whale watching tour operators in the Passamaquoddy Bay area are reporting the best year for sightings they can remember with customers almost guaranteed to see humpback, minke and finback whales - even Atlantic right whales, of which only about 400 survive today.
   "It's been spectacular," said Rydell Flynn of Captain Riddle's Whale Watching and Deep Sea Fishing on Campobello Island. "The best year we've seen for whale watching."
   The number of whales in the area that Campobello islanders call "the river" - between their island and Eastport, Maine - recalls stories from years ago of people lying in bed at night listening to them splash, he said.
Whale watching, Bay of Fundy, Photographer:Brian Atkinson   "That hasn't been seen here a long, long time;' Flynn said.
   Carolyn Leavitt, owner/operator of island Quest Marine Whale Watching and Nature Cruises in St. Andrews, told a similar story.
   "I'm just having an amazing year, it's quite spectacular," she said, reporting "more than we've seen in 12 years."
    A pod of about 40 right whales between Campobello and The Wolves islands last week especially excited Flynn and Leavitt.
   Britt (baby herring) and krill, on which whales feed, came into the Bay of Fundy with the winds and tides, drawing the whales after them, they said. "The water is full of feed," Leavitt said.
   No more whales than normal came into the Bay of Fundy this year, said Laurie Murison, executive director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station.
   They came to areas that whale watchers frequent following their food: zooplank ton for right whales, krill and britt for humpbacks, minkes and finbacks.
   "So the distribution is different this year," Murison said.
   "So you have people seeing whales where they would not normally," she said.
   "They've moved inshore this year."
   Whale watchers love it.
   "It's spectacular for them, they're not usually seeing that many," Murison said.
   This many whales last frequented the area of The Wolves Islands in 1980 and 1981, she said.
   There might be 100 right whales in the Bay of Fundy in most years, but not 40 between The Wolves and Campobello islands. "And that is completely dependent on their food distribution."
   Murison places the total number of Atlantic right whales at probably more than 400 now, up from the 350 to 400 scientists estimated several years ago. She hopes the captains of whale watching tour boats take special care around them.
   "The biggest thing to me to emphasize is that the right whales have their babies with them," Murison said."If you're cruising through an area, you should go as slow as possible."

I'M JUST HAVING AN AMAZING YEAR,
IT'S QUITE SPECTACULAR."
CAROLYN LEAVITT

   The calves, six to nine metres, might float just under the surface awaiting their mothers' return. People on boats might not even see them. Female right whales calve only every three years.
   They were hunted nearly to extinction. The survivors today are extremely inbred, Murison said. They live 50 to 100 years. Research since the 1980s does not go as far back as the normal life span of one whale.
   The whales might not number more than in most years, but the places they are showing up this year still excites MacKay.
   The whales and other creatures follow their food, which for whatever reasons came to regions this year the way MacK ay remembers it 45 years ago.
   "I've been involved out here since 1964 "he said.
Whale watching, Bay of Fundy, Photographer:Brian Atkinson   He remembers whales splashing inshore around Campobello island and elsewhere along with birds, bluefin tuna, basking sharks and other creatures people are noting again.
   "That was not that abnormal before 1980," he said. "Long about 1979, 1980, there was a huge shift in the way things happened out there."
   He described Head Harbour Passage, the entry to Passamaquoddy Bay between Campobello and Deer islands, as a "nutrient pump" years ago. "It's plugged with whales, it's absolutely plugged with whales," he said, referring to this year.
   At one time, fishermen erected herring weirs as far up the St. Croix River as The Ledge, just below St. Stephen, but not anymore, he said.
   "The stuff we dropped in (the St. Croix River) drove things offshore," MacKay believes.
   He cannot pin it to one thing, although St. Croix River towns now treat their sewage and mills treat their effluent. The shutdown at the Domtar pulp mill upriver in Baileyville, Maine, possibly had some effect, he speculated.
   Whatever happened, the phalaropes, a seabird, returned to Passamaquoddy Bay after disappearing with everything else about 30 years ago, he said.
   A tiny copequid called Calanus finmarchicus in Latin, along with krill, also returned. Whales eat these creatures.
   "They are the canary for the right whales," MacKay said.
   He does not dispute Murison's view that the whales do not number more than normal this year.
   Like the whale watching tour operators, he welcomes them back to their old haunts rather than hanging around the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.
   "This year is more spectacular than anyone has seen in decades,"he said."There's huge changes that took place this year.

Whale watching tour operators report the best year they can remember with spectacular whale sightings every trip out.

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